Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)/Food Co-Ops

In a Nutshell

Community supported agriculture (CSAs) programs are an economic system of producing and distributing food supplies more locally to the consumers. Most CSAs operate as a partnership between regional farmers and consumers. The customers pay up-front for a subscription service for the weekly delivery of fresh produce. Often times the food is delivered in a single box - recent innovations include customized ordering and more than only produce items. Food cooperatives, or co-ops, are formal partnerships organized for food distribution but owned by their employees and/or customers, rather than by corporations. Most commonly a co-op will own and manage a traditional grocery store but they can also be a "buying club" more similar to CSAs. The goal of either model is very similar - to better connect local consumers with local farmers and food producers. CSAs and Co-ops are related but different than urban agriculture programs, farmer's markets, and local food consumption.


Practical Solution

The “How To”The “How To”

For Governments

Typically local government will have a limited role in implementing CSAs and food co-ops. Very few if any governments operate either local foods program. More commonly residents and farmers will start a CSA or food co-op. But it is still important for units of local government to present a local foods and agriculture-friendly environment for such activities to operate.  Some municipalities support a local farmers' market on city land, in order to encourage local food production and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  In some cases local regulations discourage such activities. There is more information on the Planning & Zoning tab.

At a more policy-focused level, the University of Missouri Extension published a report on urban agricultural best practices, which is geared more to local governments and farmer-producers. The American Planning Association has also published a more high-level, public policy PAS report that is intended for local government audiences. The EPA also offers a similar review of local foods and additional resources.

For Residents

The "how to" can be as simple as making your food purchases through such local foods initiatives. Great resources to locate such vendors in your community are offered by the non-profit website database Local Harvest, or by resources sponsored by the USDA and managed by the University of Illinois, such as the Food Industry Market Maker or the related Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. The USDA offers a website resource specifically about Community Supported Agriculture programs. The Cooperative Grocer publication is a newsletter-magazine styled document aimed at consumers focused on food co-ops.

The EPA offers a guidebook on creating your own community garden and/or urban farm. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities offers an Urban Farm Business Plan model strategy. The National Cooperative Growers Association provides lots of resources on food co-ops and that approach to local foods. The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, with roots to former Oklahoma Governor and U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr, has published a manual titled How to Develop and Run a Successful CSA. About.com also offers a how-to guide for starting your own CSA. Similarly Local Harvest offers resources to start one. North Carolina State also offers similar resources.

Planning & ZoningPlanning & Zoning

Regulating & Zoning for Urban Food & Agriculture

A local government will intersect with such local food activities at some juncture, due to its zoning, building, health, or other codes and regulations. In some instances the types of local food activities residents want is deemed illegal, but municipalities can encourage formation of a CSA or organize farmers' markets to support local food. Portland, Oregon offers an example of an urban food code to reflect these new practices. Within the same state, the Oregon Public Health Institute offers guidance on creating such municipal codes, including a concept guidebook developed with the City of Portland. If you are unsure of where you city stands, the City of Milwaukee offers a best practice model in an urban food policy audit that outlined where their code applied to such activities and what barriers exist. Related, the City of Chicago offers as FAQ on applying their codes to urban food activities, as well as an urban agriculture ordinance.

Dealing with Sales Tax

One of the most important roles a local government can play is producing easy-to-understand materials (like a FAQ sheet) about sales tax for farmer's markets, CSAs, and food co-ops operating in your community. Often times those managing these entities will be planters, growers, farmers, and even just local residents but not always retail experts. A recent article from the Cooperative Grocer magazine highlights this frustration. Related, outlining step-by-step compliance with state departments of agriculture, county or city health departments, and all of the local municipal business licensing and registration processes, permits, and approvals is a tremendous help to local food efforts. One area that may warrant attention is evaluating your community's zoning ordinance - if a resident approached city hall about opening a CSA distribution point (i.e. a food delivery truck in a parking lot or city park) or a food co-op wanted to open a small non-profit grocery store, what parts of town would it be a permitted use? Would a special or conditional use permit be required? These are the types of local-food-friendly assessment each unit of local government needs to evaluate.

Dollars & CentsDollars & Cents

How Expensive is it to Start One?

community supported agriculture The National Cooperatives Grocers Association created Coop: Stronger Together as an online database of information about local foods, and agriculture, nutrition, and food in general. They have released a report titled Healthy Foods - Healthy Communities: Measuring the Social & Economic Impact of Food Co-ops. This resource demonstrates the economic benefits to a local community using food co-ops.

The cost of starting a CSA or food co-op depends on the details. The size, design, business model, staffing arrangement, and various other business-management related details will dictate start-up costs. Further, as any of the "how to" guides on the How To, Planning & Zoning, and Measuring Success tabs will share, a new business start-up's expenditures must be based on a realistic market analysis. CSAs and food co-ops operate based on their potential customer base and purchasing power. These types of considerations can be answered by developing a business plan for your own local CSA and food co-op and evaluating what options would yield the most success.

Municipal Expenditures

For local governments, the extent of any cost is staff time and manpower. If any regulations or codes need to be updated, added, or repealed, the likely extent of those actions will be staff time to manage the process and perhaps minimal legal fees.

Measuring SuccessMeasuring Success

How Do I Know I'm Running a CSA or Co-Op Well?

Simply, a successful CSA or food co-op is one that grows and achieves its mission. The most important step in successfully operating a CSA or food co-op is in its initial design and launch. Ultimately, you are essentially running a business and using classic management practices. For residents or local governments, one of the best ways to evaluate success is by interviewing successful case studies from other areas. The EPA offers links to case studies and success stories featuring urban agriculture from across the United States.The USDA offers resources to start and evaluate the success of a CSA. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service offers a manual on the components that make a successful CSA. The University of Tennessee offers a guidebook for farmers.

The Food Co-Op Initiative, a non-profit assisting such efforts, offers an assessment tool that maps out what needs to be in place to manage a successful food co-op. The USDA offers a collection of four case studies and outlines techniques that have made them successful. The Cooperative Grocers Information Network offers a manual on how to start a co-op that similarly outlines areas of weakness in design that can lead to failure. More directly, the Cooperative Grocer magazine offers an article that outlines the most common mistakes made and reasons why food co-ops go out of business.

Local Government Success

There is no direct metric to evaluate a local government's success with such programs. In some cases it may not even be relevant or necessary for a government to evaluate the success of a program. If a city or county is interested in local community-based CSAs and Co-ops it can provide support and assistance to such efforts and groups. Simple efforts like a "Sales Tax & CSAs" frequently asked questions flier can garner feedback and input from the community, farmers, and those involved in CSAs and Co-ops. A city or county could perform an initial audit for local-food-friendliness, make changes to their local codes and ordinances, and perform a follow-up evaluation years later to measure progress and improvement. A dynamic approach would be to establish a CSA, co-op, and local/urban foods advisory panel that could provide analysis, feedback, and serve as a sounding-board for government policies - such efforts would identify ways to best achieve everyone's goals. Ultimately, metrics to evaluate a local government's success will largely be based on what role a city or county chooses to take in local food and grocery efforts. A local government can choose to be uninvolved, or can work with local groups to become as integral to their success and demonstrating the benefits to the public as they wish.

Case StudiesCase Studies

Discover MoreDiscover More

The USDA hosts a blog titled the People's Garden that focuses on events, case studies, and news from the world of urban agriculture and local foods. They also offer a report on local food marketing hubs.

About.com offers a clearinghouse of information about Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) for the consumer.

The National Cooperative Growers Association and their magazine the Cooperative Grocer are both long-established resources.

The USDA offers resources on community supported agriculture as well.